Perry Anderson's "Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism" represents a significant contribution to historical analysis, as it endeavours to outline and explain the tensions and dynamics underlying the transitions from the slave based societies of ancient Greece and Rome through to European feudalism. Anderson offers a distinct critique, advancing a Marxist historiography, in an effort to explore and understand the relationships between antiquity and feudalism. In so doing, he stands outside conventional approaches (which tend to separate ancient history from mediaeval history). And, by addressing the role of the mode of production of these social formations (i.e. their economic base), viewing it as primary, Anderson also stands outside of mainstream historical scholarship. Yet he draws on all the available sources - both Marxist and non-Marxist - and is in no way guided by some ideological doctrine. Nonetheless, he seeks to demonstrate the importance of a thorough and comprehensive analysis emanating from the field of historical materialism.
This book embarks by exploring Graeco-Roman Antiquity, with a particular focus on the slave mode of production. Anderson demonstrates that slave-labour was the dominant mode of production - and involved, for the immense majority of the population, the complete loss of freedom and liberty. Moving from c. 600 BC to 406 AD, the book examines the contradictions inherent within systematic slavery - ultimately leading to disorder and, in consequence, ever stronger and more coercive forms of social order maintenance ... and, finally, upheaval and internal revolutionary crisis. Alongside such developments, Roman imperialism had resulted in the Germanic barbarians becoming increasing organised - until, in the end, the invasions overran much of the Empire. As such, the ancient world of Greece and Rome collapsed from both internal and external forces - both of which, argues Anderson, were a result of a mode of production based on slavery. With the eclipse of Antiquity, there was an onset of the Dark Ages ... and, in that chaotic context, a new - and economically more innovative - system emerged: feudalism. This developing mode of production is fundamentally based on serfdom - on the socio-economic relations connected to the peasant (as producer), who occupied and farmed the land but did not own it (rather, land was owned and controlled by the lord). The tensions and contradictions resulting from the relations between peasants and nobles characterised feudal society. And this type of social formation dominated much of Europe until the 14th century (and, in some cases, beyond).
This is the historical narrative told by Anderson. He continues his analysis in a follow-up book: "Lineages of the Absolutist State". This book, as with its sequel, are exceptionally well-written and clearly argued. I find Anderson's arguments to be most persuasive. If you're after a book that provides a general overview of the societal shifts - from the 5th century BC to the 14th century AD - that occurred in Europe, I fully recommend this study. The fact that Anderson succeeds in offering his analysis in just 300 pages demonstrates his skill at summarising ideas - while conveying their meaning. Personally, I consider this book to be a historical masterpiece.
When I first read this book I loved it. In it Mr. Anderson gives clear and unambiguous explanations to complex historical processes in a easily accessible way. Then I studied Scandinavian Archaeology. And discovered that many of Mr. Andersons assumtions are now very dated. His veiws on the prehistoric germans is very influenced of now amongst archaeologists long abandoned theories. This is sad, partly because it may make the reader doubt on all the explanations presented in the book, and partly because the fact that Mr Anderssons applies a Marxist perspective may incorrectly give many readers the impression that the perspective in itself is incorrect. The book is however, despite its flaws, a must as a clear and easily accesible example - and proof - of how much historical and archaeological research has changed during the last decades. The fact that it covers all of Europe rather than a single coungry or area is also a great plus.
This is a fascinating review of the development of human civilization through shifting modes of production. Whilst this might sound dry, the book is beautifully written and engaging, and destined to stimulate anyone with an open mind into thinking more about the course of human history. Highly recommended.